By Scott McDermott
Learning how to pray when our life is hurting is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn in life, yet so few of us have been taught just how to do it. Personal pain is a part of everyone’s experience. As Jesus teaches, the storms of life happen to all of us (Matthew 7:24-27). At times that pain may stem from some deep personal disappointments while at other times it may come from the loss of a relationship or the loss of a loved one.
It was during a season of personal pain that the Lord taught me a way to pray that has helped me get through some of the darkest seasons of my life. These six steps proved to be transformative, and I pray they will be the same for you as you walk through your own pain. These six steps are not new. Not at all. In fact, these six steps are woven throughout the book of Psalms, one of the powerful books of prayers and songs of worship in the Bible. So, as we pray them, we follow an ancient and Spirit-inspired path to healing and restoration.
1. Choose to lift your eyes to the Lord. Here is how the Psalmist describes this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1,2).
One can almost imagine the people of the Bible making their way up to Jerusalem for one of three annual feasts singing this Psalm. Their journey would take them along some difficult and treacherous terrain. The terrain they traveled must have reminded them of their very own life experiences. After all, life can be difficult. And yet this Psalm reminds us of something very important. Our help is not found in our own strength, it is only found in the strength that God can give. God is the one who can get us through all that we are experiencing no matter how difficult.
When we go through seasons of personal pain it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by it all. In lifting our hearts to God, however, we learn how to give direction to our pain. In other words, we overcome our problems by learning how to reach above them. And that is what prayer does. It reminds us where our help comes from. Prayer gives us the ability to reach above our problems to the One who gives us the grace to overcome them.
When we focus on God, his love, his faithfulness, and his goodness, we begin to find the hope and strength that cannot be found anywhere else. When I have sought to live into this, my prayers often begin with something like this: “Lord, I am looking to you and not to myself for all I need. You are the one who can help me. You are Lord over all my life and all my circumstances.” In doing so I am directing my life to look to God and not to myself for all I need.
2. Be honest with God. Being open and honest before God is the next step in learning how to work through personal pain. Many want to ignore this step, and simply skip to another theme, but that is not how true restoration comes. We can never overcome our pain by ignoring it. God won’t let us. Restoration only comes by learning how to unburden our hearts before God. Psalm 77 is a great example of this. At times it is filled with mighty declarations about God’s mighty activity, while at other times it is filled with expressions of anguish and distress. Psalm 77:2 says: “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.” Deep faith is found in learning how to unburden your heart before God. How have I done this?
• I ask the Lord to show me where my heart is for that day. At times, especially during seasons of loss, I find that my heart was filled with sadness, frustration, anger, questions, and sorrow. By asking God to reveal what was deep inside, I permit God to search the depths of my heart (Psalm 139:23,24) so that nothing is hidden from him.
• I have learned that there is power in learning how to give expression to my own pain. By naming it I could better release all that I was experiencing to God (1 Peter 5:7).
• I learned that God welcomed my deep confession. After all, when we make such confessions we can feel embarrassed or ashamed, but the truth is God’s love never fails us. In seasons like this I remember saying to God: “Lord you know I am not proud of how I feel, but I want my life to be right before you.” And then I would make my deep confessions before him. In the lowest moments of life, God’s love and grace still abound to us.
3. Express your complete trust in God. One must be careful to never get stuck in step two. It is always easier to complain than believe. That is what makes this next step so important. Psalm 62:8 reminds us that we are to: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” I cannot emphasize enough how significant this expression of trust is for moving forward. I have seen it shift the atmosphere of my life and many others I have prayed with.
So, what does this step look like? For me, I have often experienced it like this. After pouring my heart out, I simply say something like this to God: “Lord I do not understand all that is happening or even why it is happening, but I want you to know this, I trust You! I trust even when I don’t understand.”
4. Release everything to God. Remember all those expressions of pain in step two? Now is the time to lift them before God. As Psalm 34:19 reminds us “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Usually, I go back over all the things I have confessed in step two and release them one by one to God. I will say something like: “Lord, I release all of this to you. It is yours. My life and all my days belong to you. Take these areas of my life and use them to accomplish your purposes.”
5. Look for signs of God working. Even when we are in the darkest places of life, God never deserts us. God is always there and God is always working. Psalm 139 declares that God will make himself known even in the most difficult places of our lives. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God will always be there for me.
When my daughter had cancer, we would sit around the dinner table every night reflecting on where we saw God at work that day. Some of those days were dark and difficult and yet we always found evidence of God working in our lives without fail. One day as we traveled for one of her regular chemotherapy treatments, we were over halfway on our hour drive when my daughter informed us that she had forgotten the favorite teddy bear that she brought with her for each treatment. Due to the scheduling of the treatment, we didn’t have time to turn around and get it. I can still remember how she cried.
When we got to the hospital we made our way to the treatment room and they readied her for the next round of chemo. Some time into the treatment something amazing happened. Two volunteers were working their way around this large treatment ward passing out teddy bears to all the children receiving treatment. I couldn’t believe it. I said to my daughter, “Look Bec. Do you see this! You may have forgotten your teddy bear, but God has not forgotten you!”
God cares about our every need and he will find a way to make himself known to you.
6. Take the time to praise God. When those moments occur, remember to thank God for being so faithful. As Psalm 107:1 reminds us, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Forever is a long time! Most importantly for us, it also means that God’s goodness and love will make itself known in every season of life. Even in the most difficult season. Giving thanks helps us to see the good that God is doing and helps remind us that we are not alone as we travel this road. God is always with us.
Praying this pattern doesn’t mean that restoration will come instantly. The healing of the heart takes time. As we walk this journey with this prayer, learning how to look to God, being honest with him, declaring our trust and unburdening our hearts, looking for the signs of his working, and thanking him, we can rest assured of this, God will one day bring a new day into our lives. God will get each us through our lowest moment. You can count on it! God is faithful!
Scott McDermott has been the lead pastor of The Crossing United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania since 1993. Dr. McDermott has a BA and an MA in Biblical Studies, an MDiv, and an MPh. He also has a PhD in New Testament Studies from Drew University. Image: Shutterstock.
By Steve Beard
As I watched the evening news during the haunting first few weeks of the scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine, I could not help but see Kateryna Shadrina’s vibrant image of the Madonna and Child superimposed over the video footage on television of mothers carrying their young children in a panicked evacuation of their homeland.
Although I have half-a-dozen depictions of the Mother and Child in my office, the liquid blues and electric yellows and oranges give Shadrina’s a different dynamic. The 27-year-old artist is an iconographer from Lviv, Ukraine.
Her image wreaked havoc on me.
Visual arts animate the imagination in ways that words alone cannot. To see Michelangelo’s Pietà – the sculpture of the lifeless body of Jesus being cradled by Mary after the crucifixion – is to engage a part of the mind and soul that mere nouns and verbs do not touch. Through painting, Van Gogh helped us visualize the story of the Good Samaritan, while Rembrandt illuminated the story of the Prodigal Son. El Greco told biblical stories in Spanish Renaissance fine art, Howard Finster preached the gospel through American folk art, and Marc Chagall challenged us to see the crucifixion from a different vantage point.
Let me be clear, I am not an art critic. I like what I like. But I also understand there is much to learn through the vision of an artist. “The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender,” observed C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
Four years ago, I was drawn to an essay written by John A. Kohan in Image journal about a new generation of young iconographers from Lviv. Icons are a very specialized field of religious visual art – a practice of spiritual devotion within the church dating back to the third century. Over time, stylistic peculiarities developed that differentiated icons from other forms of religious art.
Many of these contemporary Ukrainian artists are notably utilizing unusual color schemes and unexpected textures. The images are arresting and have nudged my own personal spiritual imagination in new ways.
Kohan – who had worked for Time magazine for more than 20 years and is an avid sacred art collector – had been drawn to this fresh expression of ancient spiritual artistry because of the “intriguing new variations on traditional tempera-painted holy images” and because the illustrations were being created on “unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry, all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles.”
His essay in Image was my introduction to the work of marvels such as Ivanka Demchuk, Lyuba Yatskiv, Natalya Rusetska, and Sviatoslav Vladyka. All these artists – and numerous others – are uniquely showcased by Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv and its website.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the network evening news began broadcasting from Lviv – 40 miles from the border of Poland. That sparked my memory of Kohan’s Image story. The Rev. Kenneth Tanner, an old friend from college, also introduced me to a handful of other artists from Ukraine through Instagram.
Kateryna Kuziv. “Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.”
While my low-church Methodist heritage does not offer a framework for iconography, I fully respect and appreciate that the imagery expresses a mystical spiritual dynamic for sacramental Christians that far defies the category of mere “beautiful art.” The pieces are often referred to as “windows to heaven.” Icons are meant to cultivate the soul and be an aid in prayer.
“I believe that art should testify of beauty. The search for it always leads to God as the original source – that is why I choose iconography,” observed Kateryna Kuziv (born 1993). “Beauty always points to something more, a sense of God’s presence. Creating icons for me is a pursuit of God, of paradise as a state of being with Him, a reproduction of the transformed reality, of the purified nature of humanity from sin.”
Natalaya Rusetska. “Resurrection.”
Other artists in this spiritual stream describe their work in similarly transcendent terms.
• Natalaya Rusetska (born in 1984): “My art is about the eternal, the timeless, the extraterrestrial, the hidden. One of the inherent features of sacred art is symbolism. This is a figurative creation that reveals the inner essence of the depicted. Sacred art affects and changes the spiritual state of the human.”
Ulyana Tomkevych. “Doubting Thomas.”
• Ulyana Tomkevych (born in 1981): “Painting the icon is the special conversation with the Lord and also with oneself. The silent prayer, that gives me the feeling of inner peace and harmony. This is the time for rethinking the Bible stories and the Ten Commandments in the context of the modern human life because the Bible is timeless. I think that first of all God is Love and Mercy. And the daily icon painting helps me to live my life with this understanding.”
A prescribed new vision
“My parents are doctors, so they did not plan for me to become an artist,” said Ivanka Demchuk in an interview with The Day several years ago. At a very early age, she had serious issues with her eyesight (astigmatism, farsightedness). Her ophthalmologist prescribed an intriguing treatment: “To increase the visual load in one eye, I had to obscure the other eye and then do a lot of painting, sculpting, and coloring. From that time on, I attended children’s art clubs, an art school, took an interest in classic paintings.”
Ivanka Demchuk. “Hidden life in Nazareth.”
Today, we are all the beneficiaries. Demchuk’s artistic imagination is on full display in a particularly captivating rendering above entitled “Hidden Life in Nazareth” portraying the holy family as Jesus takes his first steps as a toddler. In the background, there is laundry drying on a clothesline and a worktable with carpentry tools. I had never contemplated the first step of someone who would become known as “The Way” – but surely, there had to be one to be celebrated and pondered. Demchuk’s work helps give believers like me a more panoramic sense to the Incarnation.
Long before Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, Demchuk (born in 1990) believed in the timeless relevance of stories such as the Good Samaritan and St. George the Dragon Slayer battling evil. In the context of the current barbaric war, some of her images take on even deeper significance and symbolism. “The evolution of human consciousness has not gone far enough to render us qualitatively different from people who lived two millennia ago,” she has observed. “We are facing the same problems and issues; we may become traitors just as those who crucified Christ.”
“A sword shall pierce your soul”
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:34-35).
The soul pierce. What a gothic declaration to a young mother. Unlike any other human walking the earth, Mary knew Jesus with an unparalleled knowledge and intimacy. In understated fashion, the biblical text declares, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Kateryna Shadrina’s imagery of the Madonna and Child gives an almost expansive stargazing night scope to Mary’s experience. Mother and Child have been artistically portrayed since the era of the catacombs. The great poet Dante referred to Mary as “the lovely sapphire whose grace ensapphires the heaven’s brightest sphere.” Shadrina’s brilliant color scheme reflects that poetic sentiment. Her insightful artistic collection has rejuvenated my own spiritual imagination when I revisit biblical stories I have read for decades.
Kateryna Shadrina. “Victima.”
Shadrina’s exhibition at Iconart Gallery earlier this year was entitled “Victima” and reflected her views on sacrifice, faith, and love. In addition to her artistry, her thoughts on the subjects are equally compelling.
“Where there is true love, there will always be a place for sacrifice. Sacrifice can be considered as the level at which the power of love is measured,” she writes in the exhibit’s narrative. “And the standard in this is God – the perfection of love. He sacrificed the most precious thing for our hope. But in our pragmatic world, it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons so that one’s sacrifice is not made in vain. We are focused on the terrestrial things, we catch the moment and don’t know exactly whether to think about the salvation of the soul and the kingdom of heaven.”
Art in bomb shelters.
Because missiles do not recognize beauty, truth, or faith, Ukrainians have been storing precious artwork in bunkers. “There is an egomaniac in Moscow who doesn’t care about killing children, let alone destroying art,” Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, told the Washington Post. “If our history and heritage are to survive, all art must go underground.”
There are, of course, pieces of great beauty and value that cannot be hidden in bunkers. Statues have been wrapped in foam and plastic. “The stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1360, are covered in metal to protect them from Russian rockets,” reports the New York Times.
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. British Museum.
Early on in the invasion, Putin’s army targeted a museum in Ivankiv, 50 miles northwest of Kyiv. Housed in this seemingly insignificant civilian target were 25 paintings by Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), a world-renowned Ukrainian folk artist who wowed both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
“The museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed,” the artist’s great-granddaughter Anastasiia Prymachenko told The Times of London. “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture.”
In a truly heroic gesture, a friend of Anastasiia’s ran into the burning museum and saved as many of the artworks as he was able. “When he saw the smoke from the museum he ran, broke the museum window and went into the fire,” she reported. “He couldn’t take everything out but he knew the most famous paintings were by Prymachenko. Since he only had a few minutes, he just took these paintings, and a few other works of art.”
Prymachenko created brightly-colored mythical and fantastical creatures and her work was called primitive, naïve, or the “art of a holy heart.” With critically acclaimed exhibitions literally around the globe, she stated her motivation in utterly tender terms. “I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth,” she once said.
Allowing art to shine
Christianity around the globe is largely represented by three major expressions: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Within Ukraine, the vast majority of the population is Orthodox. However, Ukrainian Greek Catholicism is the dominant expression of faith in Lviv and in much of western Ukraine (the “Greek” in the title is about its Byzantine liturgical worship style, not about Greek ethnicity).
“Pilate condemns Jesus” by Ivanka Demchuk.
The contemporary iconographers in Lviv come from a spiritual lineage of survival that knows what it is like to hold fast to life and faith underground. After World War II, Joseph Stalin mercilessly attempted to dissolve and destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It was forced to worship in clandestine secrecy. The sanctuaries, art, and treasuries were summarily confiscated and handed over to Moscow’s Orthodox Church.
“Harsh repressions followed,” observed Dr. Nadia M. Diuk, then vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a 2016 Atlantic Council report. “Ukrainian Catholic priests were beaten, tortured, and given long prison sentences. Tens of thousands of religious laity met the same fate. UGCC Metropolitan Josef Slipiy was exiled to a hard labor camp in Siberia. The church went underground: services were held in the forests, or in private homes where they dared. Children were baptized in secret and religious rites performed clandestinely, while the Soviet state continued its assault on priests, monks, nuns, and the Catholic faithful, offering respite within the Russian Orthodox Church or repression as the price for refusal to cut ties with the bishop of Rome.” (Dr. Diuk, herself ethnically Ukrainian, died in 2019.)
In 1994, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times: “While many priests died in concentration camps and believers were persecuted, it was the biggest underground church in the former Soviet Union. Rites were administered, priests ordained and bishops consecrated secretly during these years.”
Part of the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in 1989 was the restoration of the legal status to this ruthlessly persecuted church. On August 19, 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church received possession – once again – of the historic Cathedral of St. George in Lviv. Tens of thousands rejoiced inside and outside the reclaimed sanctuary.
It is not difficult to see the new generation of imaginative artists and iconographers as a significantly blossoming manifestation of relentless faithfulness during decades of Soviet suppression.
“The time when I create the icon is my way of praying, questioning, searching, the time of being with God, before God, the state of happiness and peace,” said Katheryna Kuziv about her art. “The aim is to express the ‘incarnation’ of God’s Word in a visual image, where a touch of God’s reality must take place to awaken a longing for God, to promote the pursuit of Him.”
Although once viewed solely as a distinct art form within Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, John Kohan (spiritualartpilgrim.com) has hopes that an ecumenical reappraisal is taking place with a new generation. “Expanding the range of prototypes of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and key moments in sacred history can only make these images, which are uniquely created for personal prayer and corporate devotion, more accessible to larger numbers of Christians – a development in sacred art-making, surely worth celebrating in the universal church,” he wrote.
During the 1990s, there was not a more popular art commentator on British television than the late Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018). For more than 40 years, she lived in obscurity as a reclusive nun devoted to prayer in the middle of the night. However, the plain-spoken elderly nun – an Oxford-educated amateur art historian – became a media sensation with her insightful BBC/PBS tutorials on various works of art – from cave drawings to Andy Warhol, including iconography.
While she had detractors, Sister Wendy most certainly understood the spiritual dimension of icons. She knew that the apparent surrealism was often utilized to invite our eye to gaze at a world unseen. “They are drawing us out of our worldly reality into their world, the true world,” she wrote in Encounters with God, “summoning us to leave behind all that is earthly and to breathe an air more pure than we can understand.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Art above: “Madonna and Child” by Kateryna Shadrina (left) and Hidden life in Nazareth” by Ivanka Demchuk (right). Special thanks to Iconart Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.
“We are together” by Kateryna Shadrina of Lviv, Ukraine. Used by permission of the artist.
By Steve Beard
It was standing-room-only for the noon Ash Wednesday service at my local church. Ushers were pulling folding chairs out of a closet and people were sitting in the hallway outside the sanctuary. Parishioners were literally standing against the back and side walls. It was probably a fire hazard.
We were all squeezed in to be reminded of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust,” the pastor said as the sign of the cross was smudged on my forehead, “and to dust you shall return.” Stark and sobering.
Six thousand miles away, there were believers in Ukrainian bomb shelters. At the time, the brutal invasion had only been a week old. “We survived yet another horrible night,” reported the archbishop of the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv on the first Sunday of Lent – the introspective season of denial leading up to Easter.
“But after night, there comes day, there is morning,” he said. “After darkness, there comes light, just as after death there comes resurrection, which we all today radiantly celebrate!”
This has been the consistent Christian witness throughout time and proclaimed among all nationalities – across all borders and time zones and languages.
Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we are mortal. Easter reveals that we, too, can experience everlasting life.
Because of the relentless bombing, mothers, children, and the elderly had been sequestered underground in Kyiv. “The Church will come to the people,” said the archbishop. “Our priests will descend to the underground, they will descend to the bomb shelters, and there they will celebrate the Divine Liturgy.”
This statement of commitment became all the more vivid when I saw an unattributed photo of a young priest preparing to serve communion in a concrete bomb shelter. I could not help but think of the pastoral challenge for Ukrainian clergy responding to the needs of their flocks. Lent would be brutal.
Yet, this priest was just one of the inspirational and provocative images of love, commitment, and Ukrainian resilience displayed in the midst of this horrific geopolitical tragedy.
• There was the photograph of the baby strollers left on the platform at a train station in Poland for soon-to-be-arriving refugees who would need them.
• There was a short video clip on the evening news of two flamboyantly dressed-up entertainers dancing and singing with children in one of the subway bomb shelters. Sheer joy was the expression on the faces of the little ones. For just a fleeting moment, they were able to simply be kids rather than displaced war pawns living underground with no knowledge of when they can return home – or if they even still had a home. At the end of the performance, the children all got a small trinket. They were elated.
• There are the internet videos of musicians playing in apartment basements and subterranean bomb shelters to lift the spirits of their neighbors. Vera Lytovchenko, a violinist for the Kharkiv Theater of Opera and Ballet, has given impromptu concerts for her neighbors. “In the cold, cramped basement, with nothing in the way of decoration except candles and yellow tulips, she has performed Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, and Ukrainian folk songs,” reported the New York Times.
“My music can show that we are still human,” she said. “We need not just food or water. We need our culture. We are not like animals now. We still have our music, and we still have our hope.”
One set of my maternal great grandparents migrated to the United States in 1875 from Ukraine. They moved here shortly after having been married in Odesa. Today, there are battleships off Odesa’s coast in the Black Sea.
Right after the invasion began, a young Ukrainian couple were on the local news collecting blankets and jackets and socks to send to refugees. I noticed that their business was not far from my home.
When I arrived, there were boxes of diapers stacked up in the front window of Grace’s Nutrition Market. Local people had been dropping supplies by the health food store in order to help the beleaguered victims of war. Greeted with warmth and a smile by the staff, I asked about the diapers. A kind woman asked if I wanted to see the rest of the operation. Moments later we were walking through the shop and then through a dimly lit storage area before she opened up the door to the back alley. As we walked out into the bright Texas sunlight, I almost burst into tears. About a dozen women of various ages were packing supplies around 10 folding tables. There was the sound of a vacuum-sealer as they diligently and faithfully packaged blankets and coats in plastic to be put in a shipping container on its way to Poland. This was a small and potent outpost of compassion.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are rightly reminded during Lent. At the same time, we are far more than dust. We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. This life is filled with blessings and tragedy, as well as miracles, mystery, and beauty. “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers,” instructs the ancient scribe, “for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
What I saw in the back alley was more than inspirational. I could barely hold back my tears. I watched with heartfelt appreciation as those volunteers poured their love into the work.
As we walked back through the shop, I told my new friend that I felt so helpless as I watched the news and saw the lines of tanks and buildings destroyed by bombs. She looked in my eyes and said, “Don’t forget to pray. Prayer can move mountains.” I would never argue with her about that.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.
By Rob Renfroe
When I speak to churches about the problems dividing the United Methodist Church, I begin by saying, “If you are not aware of what I am about to tell you, it will be hard for you to believe. I’ll sound like an ancient astronomer trying to convince you the earth revolves around the sun when everyone is certain it’s the other way around. I’ll come across like the ‘lunatic’ of an earlier era proclaiming the world is round when everyone ‘knows’ it’s flat. Some things are hard to believe even though they are true.”
Then I describe to them the deeper issues that divide the UM Church. I tell them we are divided about the Bible. Over the years, there have been UM pastors who’ve made statements about how the Bible cannot be trusted to tell us God’s will and how they scoff at those of us who believe the Scriptures are the inspired word of God. I recount our differences about the work of the Holy Spirit and how many UM pastors have told me the Spirit is revealing new truths that contradict and override what the Bible teaches.
I tell them about my conversation with a highly respected tall-steeple pastor who told me, “Rob, the Church created the Bible. So, we can re-create the Bible.” I tell them that worst of all we are divided on Jesus. Some of us believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for all humankind. But we have a bishop who has warned us not to make an idol (a false God) out of Jesus. We have a UM seminary professor who told me, “God is wholesale; Jesus is retail,” meaning Jesus is just one of many religious teachers, not really different from Mohammad or Buddha. We had a UM seminary president who said if you feel a need to tell persons of other religions about Jesus, you don’t understand Jesus.
These are hard things to believe if you have been in your local church with a pastor who is faithful to the Scriptures, where you repeat the historic creeds and mean them, and where you pray for your nonbelieving neighbors to come to faith in Jesus. These are hard things to believe, but they are true.
Now, there is another hard truth we must accept. The Commission on General Conference delayed General Conference for political reasons. The Commission did not simply disappoint us by deciding not to hold General Conference. They chose not to hold General Conference and they chose not to do the work that could have made it possible.
Trusted members of the Commission report that the international delegates who spoke up during the deliberations concerning General Conference argued that it could be held and that delegates from around the world could find a way to travel to the United States. Those who argued otherwise were primarily white, American, and liberal (see article on page 16).
It’s hard to believe that a desire to sabotage the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation was the reason many Commission members voted against holding General Conference. But it’s even harder not to. The Episcopal Church, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, the United Methodist Women, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association are all holding large in-person meetings this spring and summer with delegates coming from around the world.
Where there is a will to meet there is a way. Where there is a will to undermine the one solution that would have led to a just and orderly resolution of the problems that divide us – well, the institutional members of the Commission found a way. Ironically, the Commission announced at its March meeting the formation of a task force to explore the possibility of a hybrid General Conference in 2024. This change of heart comes too late and shows what the Commission thought impossible could have been done a year ago.
Again, I know that’s hard to believe for persons in their local churches who assume all church leaders are honest, fair, and well-meaning. But the truth is the earth revolves around the sun, the world is round, and power politics led to the postponement of General Conference.
Here’s something else that will be hard to believe. There will be some bishops who will mislead the church and many pastors who will deceive their congregations in the coming months about the future of the UM Church. As local churches consider their options for leaving, they will be told they are overreacting. Some bishops and pastors will tell United Methodists in the pews that “there is no reason to depart because nothing will change – the UM Church will continue to be a big tent denomination that respects all persons and all points of views. You and your church will never be made to do anything you do not want to do.” If it’s hard for you to hear this, I’m sorry. But statements claiming there will be no change in the local church are untrue. And many who say these things know they are.
If you believe the progressives (who will be in control of the denomination when many traditionalists leave) will allow you to deny “justice” to same-sex couples who want to be married in your church; if you believe liberals will permit your annual conference to discriminate against partnered gay persons who feel called to be pastors; if you believe a bishop will never send a progressive pastor to your congregation to make you into “a real Methodist church,” then you are in denial.
The progressives have told us who they are. They have been open about their agenda. And after the Commission’s decision to cancel a General Conference that could have allowed us to go our separate ways in peace, it is obvious that some church leaders will do anything necessary to reach their goal of a woke liberal denomination, even if it means harming traditional churches.
It’s time to believe hard things. And it’s time to do a hard thing: Prayerfully consider leaving the UM Church. I hope you and your congregation will join other traditional Wesleyans in the Global Methodist Church. It may take time to do that. We have hard decisions in front of us. My prayer is that traditionalists will step into a better day with others who believe in the Lordship of Jesus, the truth of the Scriptures and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
By Thomas Lambrecht
The United Methodist Church is currently in an extremely awkward position. The vast majority of church leaders acknowledge the need for separation to take place in order to resolve the decades-long controversy over biblical authority and interpretation, sexual ethics, and the definition of marriage (among other topics). A Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was negotiated and appeared to have broad support across the church in 2020. The pandemic has interfered, causing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, which was set to potentially adopt the Protocol. Now, the General Conference will not meet until 2024.
There is now no clear, denomination-wide process for local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church in order to align with the Global Methodist Church. We thought by adopting ¶ 2553 (the Taylor disaffiliation plan) in 2019, that the General Conference had created such a consistent process. However, the way ¶ 2553 is being applied, every annual conference can make its own rules about what is required for a local church to move to the GM Church. In effect, there are 50 different sets of rules in the United States for local churches to follow. And the various annual conferences outside the U.S. are in different situations, operating under their own sets of rules and legalities.
In the absence of a clear, denomination-wide process for disaffiliation, many traditionalists are feeling “stuck” in a denomination that has abandoned what they believe and stand for, particularly in the U.S. It is important to understand the factors creating this “stuck” feeling and to move toward addressing the causes. Only as an amicable separation is able to take place will The United Methodist Church, as a whole and all its parts, be able to move forward into a new and more faithful reality (regardless of which perspective people hold on our issues of disagreement).
Lack of Information
One of the factors in a feeling of “stuckness” is the lack of information being shared. Many average church members have been unaware of the depth of the division within the UM Church. Many clergy have bent over backwards not to tell them what has been going on. With the announcement that the Global Methodist Church is launching, there are many laity saying, “Wait – what?!” It is important for clergy and lay leaders in local churches to inform their people about the issues dividing our denomination and the potential for separation. Being kept in the dark creates feelings of powerlessness and mistrust among members toward their leaders.
Information is available on the Good News website and on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website that delves into the issues around separation. Most of my articles are collected on my blog site for people to read, and they cover the issues involved over the past several years.
Even more problematic is the lack of information about the process of separation for local churches. Once a church wants to explore its options, those options must be explained in a way that allows for church leaders and congregations to make informed decisions. UM News Service has a comprehensive article that helps understand the process of disaffiliation in general. Wespath (the church’s pension board) has prepared information about disaffiliation and how it affects clergy and congregations in relation to the pension program. Other general information about disaffiliation is available on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website, including information about the Global Methodist Church, for which you can also see the GM Church website.
This is all good general information, but the problem I mentioned above is that there are different rules for disaffiliation for each annual conference. Many annual conferences have not published their unique rules or made them available even on request. In some annual conferences, repeated calls to the conference office go unreturned. Again, where people are kept in the dark, they feel helpless and “stuck.”
One important piece of information is how much money a church would owe in order to disaffiliate. Under the prevailing rules of ¶ 2553 enacted in 2019, a church must pay two years’ worth of apportionments and its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. That pension liability payment is calculated individually for each congregation by its annual conference. Yet, many annual conferences are not making that payment amount available to congregations, even when they request it.
The North Georgia Annual Conference has taken the lead by publishing that pension liability payment for each local church on its website. An annual conference receives its pension liability number from Wespath each year in the fall. It can then allocate the local church’s share of that pension liability using a formula determined by the annual conference. Most often, this is the apportionment formula, but various annual conferences use different formulas to calculate the individual congregation’s share.
It is unfortunate that many annual conferences are refusing to make that number available to their local churches in a timely way when they request it. This is a simple math problem. The number for all local churches in an annual conference could be calculated in an afternoon. Yet, some conferences are holding on to that information and keeping their churches in the dark. The local church is then “stuck” because it cannot move forward toward making a decision on disaffiliation without knowing how much it is going to cost.
Another factor in causing the feeling of “stuckness” among traditionalists is that some bishops and annual conferences are refusing to move forward with the disaffiliation process, even though it is outlined in the Book of Discipline. Several annual conferences are not moving forward with disaffiliations this year because they have yet to figure out their rules to govern the process. This is despite the fact that ¶ 2553 has been the law of the church since 2019. At the very least, this situation betrays the level of incompetence among some annual conference leaders in failing to consider and develop plans in a timely way for local churches to disaffiliate. (One hope for the Global Methodist Church is that it will be much more nimble, able to respond to changing circumstances rapidly and anticipating needs and planning for them ahead of time.)
A more nefarious motivation may be behind some delay tactics. Some annual conference leaders may be hoping to make the process so long and torturous that local churches give up and remain within the UM Church. One district superintendent responded to a request for disaffiliation from a local church by saying that his district already had several churches disaffiliating this year and he did not have time to deal with more. So this church would just have to wait until next year. Other superintendents have refused to schedule a church conference to vote on disaffiliation when requested to do so by the local church. After all, the longer it takes a church to disaffiliate, the longer that church will contribute its apportionments to support the annual conference. Of course, that assumes congregations will be willing to continue paying apportionments in the face of what appears to be bad faith actions.
The failure of some annual conferences to draft the rules for local church disaffiliation can fall under this delay category, as well. Some annual conferences are saying, “Sorry, we have to draw up the rules and then they have to be approved by this year’s annual conference in order to take effect. You will have to wait until next year to disaffiliate.” Again, conferences have had three years to draw up their rules for disaffiliation, and the failure to do so, even amid the pandemic, is inexcusable. Some conferences are finding a way to work around this by holding a special annual conference session later in the year to deal with disaffiliating congregations. Others could do the same.
These delay tactics will not cause traditionalists to want to remain United Methodist. If anything, they will reinforce traditionalists’ desire to move into a new denomination that is more responsive and provides better leadership. Unfortunately, some traditionalists will not be willing to wait for the annual conference to get its act together. Individual members may just decide to give up and go down the road to another denomination’s church that is in line with their beliefs. That will, of course, weaken the traditionalist UM congregation. It also plays into the hands of the annual conference, which could then potentially send in a liberal pastor to shift the congregation in a more theologically progressive direction, hoping to keep it in the UM Church. Or, if the church declines too much, the conference will just close the church, sell the property, and live longer off the legacy of resources accumulated by traditionalist congregations.
In any event, the delay makes that congregation feel “stuck.” It cannot move forward because of the roadblocks put up by its annual conference.
Egregious Financial Payments
A final factor in keeping traditionalists feeling “stuck” is the imposition of egregious financial payments on a disaffiliating congregation. The requirements of ¶ 2553 amount to roughly six to nine times the congregation’s annual apportionment figure. Many churches find it challenging to raise that amount of money in a lump sum to be paid at the time of disaffiliation. Some congregations resort to borrowing the funds from a bank, from the UM Foundation, or from their members. Of course, that imposes a long-term drag on the church’s ability to fund ministry, but at least it gets them into a more desirable denominational situation. But if they cannot raise the funds or are unwilling to pay that amount, they will be stuck.
On top of that already challenging financial payment, some annual conferences are requiring local churches to pay additional costs. Most egregiously, some are charging a percentage of the church’s appraised property value (anywhere from 20 to 50 percent). One conference is even trying to get 50 percent of all the church’s assets, including mission funds, local foundation, memorial funds, etc.
Essentially, these annual conferences want their disaffiliating congregations to pay twice for the facilities they will carry into the new denomination. In many cases, those congregations have been faithfully paying into the conference apportionments and program for decades, and the annual conference has put none of its own money into those congregations. To charge congregations for a percentage of their facilities is grossly unfair and amounts to a “poison pill” that effectively prevents a congregation from departing. For most churches, there is no way for them to raise the kind of money that would double purchase their buildings and assets.
These egregious financial payments again make traditionalists feel “stuck” and unable to change their congregation’s denominational alignment.
The Consequences of “Stuckness”
To the extent that UM leaders are pursuing a strategy to slow-walk disaffiliation in hopes of keeping traditionalists “stuck,” it is a strategy that could backfire. Weakening local churches serves neither the interests of the UM Church nor the GM Church. Nor does it advance the work of God’s Kingdom.
Keeping unwilling traditionalists boxed into the UM Church only increases resentment toward the denomination and jeopardizes continued apportionment payments and other forms of participation and engagement in the work of the church. It also prevents centrists and progressives from moving forward with their agenda to change the UM Church in a more progressive direction. Instead, it is in the interest of centrists and progressives to allow traditionalists a clear and feasible pathway to disaffiliate. Only as congregations are sorted out to where they want to be will both denominations be able to put the conflict behind them and move forward into a positive future. Here’s to hoping that the “stuckness” ends soon!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo by Shutterstock.
Lloyd J. Lunceford
Church Trust Law Webinar: Tuesday, May 10, 7 PM Central Time
Do United Methodist congregations own their buildings?
What is a trust?
Can the United Methodist trust be revoked?
Is there a legal process for disaffiliating from the UM Church separate from what is in the Book of Discipline?
When might it make sense to use the legal process, rather than the Discipline’s process?
When might a local church need an attorney, and when might it not need one?
What steps should a local church take to prepare for disaffiliation?
During this confusing time in The United Methodist Church, it is important to have clear, factual answers to the many questions surrounding disaffiliation. Good News is sponsoring a Webinar to help answer these and other questions and provide helpful information. Understanding church trust law can help your church discern when it is appropriate to use an attorney and when it is not needed.
The presenter will be Lloyd Lunceford, Esq. of the firm Taylor Porter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has practiced law since 1984, with emphases in higher education, mass communications, commercial litigation, and church property laws. He served for many years on the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, the Presbyterian equivalent of Good News. He was involved in many church property cases during the separation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area. You can read more about him at https://www.taylorporter.com/our-attorneys/lloyd-j-lunceford
To participate in the webinar, please use this Zoom link below:
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 898 3189 2524
If you have any questions, please contact the Rev. Tom Lambrecht at firstname.lastname@example.org